A Cynic Walks into a Church

He was about 30 years old. A good head on his shoulders. A fine education under his belt. He was what we today might call a millennial with a Master’s degree and upward mobility. He paid the bills as a highly gifted public speaker who kept his audience on the edge of their seats. 

He was also religious, but was cynical about Christianity.
How could he ever discover truth in that temple of fairytales?

One day, however, he did visit a church. A well-known pastor stood in the pulpit. He observed the worship. Listened to the sermon. But when the young man met the preacher after the service, he found him unfriendly and a bit on the pompous side. This guy may have had the theology of angels but he had the personality of a jackass. He smelled of churchly arrogance, as if his creed put him above others, especially this millennial-aged man who had rejected Christianity on rational grounds.

So this smart, educated cynic walked away with a sour taste in his mouth. He would never waste his time in worship again. And, as a result, this young man, named Augustine, faded from history. Never would he be known by the world as the Bishop of Hippo, author of The City of God, and the foremost influential teacher of western Christianity.

That, at least, is what might have happened.

We could very easily have never heard of Augustine, whom we call Saint Augustine. He would simply be one of the millions of forgotten names in the dark mists of history. Had that pastor, whose name is Ambrose, been a religious jerk to young Augustine, had Ambrose been overbearing, full of himself, and condescending to this 30-year-old, then not only the history of the church, but the very history of the world would have been different.

As it was, thank God, we do know Augustine. We know him as a saint, bishop, author, and spiritual leader. We know him because when this confused and cynical young man stepped into Ambrose’s church, he found this pastor to be a kind, loving, welcoming man of God. Reflecting years later upon the day he met him, Augustine says, “I came to love [Ambrose], not at first as a teacher of the truth, which I had utterly despaired of finding in Your church, but for his kindness towards me,” (Confessions, Book 5:13).

As an orator, a man of words, Augustine was impressed by the eloquent preaching of Ambrose. He was impressed, too, by his biblical interpretation. But it wasn’t his sermons, his doctrine, or his exposition that first won the heart of this church-father-to-be. It was his kindness.

The North Pole Church

Like many of you, I am a member of a tradition that has a rich and deep doctrinal heritage. Indeed, the man after whom my own denomination is named, Martin Luther, was tremendously impacted by Augustine, whom he quotes more than any other church father. Whole libraries could be filled with our works on church history, homiletics, exegesis, and systematic theology.

All of this is good, indeed, a gift of God. But if a modern-day Augustine walked into one of our churches, none of this would make much of an impact on him if he encountered dogmatic bigheadedness, churchly elitism, and the spiritual equivalent of the north pole. If the “Ambrose” he met was unkind and ego-obese, chances are our “Augustine” would never return. And, let’s be honest, who could blame him?

Diabolical Dichotomies

So my point is that we need to have less doctrine and more love in church?
We need to be more concerned about extending kindness and less about extending truth?
What matters is not the creed we confess but the grace we show?
Hell to the No. God forbid. Nope, those are diabolical dichotomies.
It’s not an either/or. It’s not even a both/and.
It’s something different.

@@Never underestimate the impact it makes on our treatment of people when, looking into their faces, we see not a cynic, a doubter, or even a stranger, but a son or daughter of God.@@ We look into the eyes of one for whom Christ sweated drops of blood and wore a crown of thorns. We gaze into the countenance of a person fashioned in the image and likeness of God. We see the beautiful creation of the Father, the blessed recipient of the Son’s atonement, and the heart in which the Spirit desires to abide. This young man or woman, this seeker, questioner or cynic, this potential new Augustine, is the particular embodiment of the world which God so loved that he gave his only-begotten Son.

If that doesn’t make an impact on how we treat people, what will?

There is no divorce between doctrine and life, preaching and loving. The teachings we confess to be true are like trees waiting to drop the sweet fruits of love and kindness and hospitality. The more that we hear the law, the more we recognize others as those who, like us, are torn and tattered by the wounds of sin and brokenness. And the more we hear of Christ’s grace, the more we recognize them as those who, also like us, have our names traced on the very heart of God.

O God, unite our hearts to fear your name, and to love your children.

Daring to Love

Augustine came to love Ambrose for his kindness towards him. Thanks be to God that, of all the churches into which Augustine might have gone, he stepped into a congregation in Milan where this man of God served the flock of Christ. And thanks be to God that Ambrose, who is one of the hymn-writers of the early church, knew that love itself is a kind of hymn, a song of mercy, that enters the ears and echoes within the heart to make music that draws the soul to stay.

Thank you, O Lord, for Augustine.
Thank you, O Lord, for Ambrose.
@@Thank you, O Lord, for all who know that the course of history is often changed by someone who dares to love.@@